Tenth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment against Plaintiff in FMLA and ADA Retaliation Case Against Wyoming Chemical Company

On January 21, 2014, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the U.S. District Court for Wyoming’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Defendant in the Smothers v. Solvay Chemicals, Inc. case. Solvay stated reason for terminating Mr. Smothers’s employment was that he had violated the company’s safety policy by failing to obtain a “line break permit” before repairing an acid pump, and had then quarreled with a coworker who objected to his doing this. Mr. Smothers argued that the true reason for his termination was that he had made a series of FMLA and ADA claims pertaining to a painful neck and back condition that often prevented him from sleeping or working.

Evidence shows that Solvay considered Mr. Smothers an excellent mechanic and a reliable employee. However, once he began to take FMLA leave for his injury, his managers and coworkers began to complain and talk negatively about him. Prior to terminating him, Solvay managers had pressured Mr. Smothers to change from his graveyard shift to a day shift, so that other staff members could absorb his absences without the company’s incurring overtime costs. This change of shifts would have reduced his income by about $7,000 per year.

In evaluating the District Court’s judgment, the Appeals Court used the McDonnell-Douglas framework for evaluating cases of discrimination or retaliation. This framework involves three steps: (1) the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation; (2) the defendant employer must offer a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action; and (3) the plaintiff must show there is at least a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer’s proffered legitimate reason is genuine or pretextual. The defendant had argued that Mr. Smothers failed to establish a prima facie argument on both his ADA and FMLA claims. Solvay argued, and the Wyoming District Court agreed, that Mr. Smothers failed to establish that he had a disability under the ADA or that there was a ‘triable issue of fact’ as to whether Solvay’s reasons for firing him were genuine or pretextual.

The Appeals Court rejected the District Court’s reasoning on both counts. With regard to the ADA claim, the Appeals Court found that there was sufficient evidence about Mr. Smothers’s medical condition to make this a legitimate question of fact for the court to adjudicate. With regard to the FMLA claim, the Appeals Court found that there were several reasons for thinking Solmay’s reasons for firing Smothers were pretextual rather than genuine: first, the company had treated other employees differently under similar circumstances; second, Solmay had not attempted a fair investigation of the quarrel between Smothers and his coworker; and third, there was evidence that Smothers’s managers and coworkers had become biased against him in response to his past FMLA-protected absences.

If you believe you are a victim of employment discrimination or retaliation based on your disability, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.